Alaphilippe back to his best on the Mur de Huy
Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) won his first Classic of the season at Flèche Wallonne with a trademark punchy sprint on the Mur de Huy.
The world champion had played down his chances before the race, claiming that he wasn’t in the best form, and indeed his results this spring haven’t been quite up to the level we’ve grown to expect from him. Since making a good start with second at Strade Bianche in March, he had only made the top 10 of one Classic — Amstel Gold Race on Sunday, where he was sixth.
But this was a vintage Alaphilippe performance, as he used his peerless uphill sprint to win on the Mur de Huy.
In hindsight, maybe he should have been a clearer favourite heading into the race. Although their pre-race form meant the likes of Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) and Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) were being hyped for victory, Alaphilippe has a superb record in this race. This is his third win here in a row (a run only interrupted by his absence last year), and before that winning run began in 2018 he’d finished second behind Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) on both his previous appearances.
If Valverde was once the master of the Mur de Huy, now that crown has clearly passed to Alaphilippe. With three career victories here now in the bag, he’s just two away from equalling the Spaniard’s record — and given how he’s mastered this race, has a good chance of doing so in the coming years.
Van der Breggen reigns supreme yet again
Anna van der Breggen (SD Worx) once again reigned supreme on the Mur de Huy to claim her seventh successive victory at La Flèche Wallonne.
Despite her history, her win this year never felt like an inevitability, and she agreed with her interviewer at the end that this might have been the most difficult of her seven victories.
Before the race there were questions about her fitness, after the effects of illness appeared to hold her back at Amstel Gold.
The way she managed to cover Annemiek van Vleuten’s attack on the Chemin des Gueuses, where the nine-woman selection who made it to the foot of the Mur de Huy was formed, confirmed that she had fully recovered, but new doubts about her chances arose as she was placed at a tactical disadvantage. Demi Vollering was the only team-mate left with her, and was forced to chase the threatening Ruth Wilder (Trek-Segafredo), who remained out front having attacked earlier with Anna Henderson (Jumbo-Visma) and Elise Chabbey (Canyon-SRAM).
Even on the Mur de Huy, she was put under a great deal of pressure by Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM), who pushed her all the way to the top. But Van der Breggen was just about the strongest in the eventual sprint between the two, to continue her extraordinary run
“Next year I won’t bother the girls anymore” she joked at the finish, referring to the fact that this will be her last Flèche Wallonne before retirement. Her rivals will surely be relieved with no longer having to work out how to beat her in this race.
Does Roglič pay for lack of experience?
Two things are often said about sprinting on the Mur de Huy: firstly, that experience gives you a big edge over the less experienced; and secondly, that it’s always better to wait than to make your move too early.
Both those statements appeared to be confirmed by what happened to Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) today. This was his debut at Flèche Wallonne, and he put in an explosive attack around 350m from the finish, quickly opening up a gap of several bike-lengths over the rest of the peloton.
There was no doubting the explosiveness of the attack, but the timing was surely questionable. Behind, Alaphilippe bided his time, edging closer and closer to the Slovenian’s wheel before coming around him before the line.
When asked at the finish about his timing, Roglič was adamant that he lost as a result of having inferior legs to Alaphilippe, rather than a tactical error. ”I was just there, and thought: why not? If I had a little stronger legs, I would win.”
Yet while it’s true that he was still better than everyone else apart from Alaphilippe — beating the most experienced rider of all, Alejandro Valverde, into third — you do wonder whether Roglič will open his sprint quite so early the next time he rides Flèche Wallonne.
Niewiadoma is the nearly-woman yet again
This has been a spring of frustrating near-misses for Kasia Niewiadoma, and once again today she just fell short of what would have been her first win in almost two years.
At both Dwars door Vlaanderen and Amstel Gold Race, she was one of the two strongest riders, but on each occasion failed to win. In the former, her fellow escapee Van Vleuten was stronger than her in the sprint at the line, and in the latter, she and Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) were caught before the line having gone clear from the rest on the Cauberg.
Continuing that pattern, she was along with Van der Breggen one of the two strongest riders at Flèche Wallonne, and once again couldn’t quite claim victory.
Still, she gave a great fight. Rather than sit on Van der Breggen’s wheel up the Mur de Huy, Niewiadoma moved forward so that she was shoulder-to-shoulder with the Dutchwoman, as if to prove that she was not intimidated by the six-time winner’s seemingly unbeatable record here.
She remained at her side until the bend at 200m to the finish, when she made another statement by starting her sprint first. But ultimately Van der Breggen was the strongest, and came past her wheel again on the finishing straight.
It was a great effort by the Pole, who finished well ahead of Borghini in third to seal second, which is her highest career finish at Flèche Wallonne. She’ll desperately be hoping for a victory soon though — and Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday looks well within her grasp.
Another year, another Mur de Huy sprint
There was to be no breaking of the formula that Flèche Wallonne has followed for many years now, but there was still plenty of action and drama before the familiar final sprint up the Mur de Huy.
The women’s race in particular featured plenty of tactical intrigue. Unsurprisingly, it was Annemiek van Vleuten who lit the race up on the Chemin des Gueuses climb, bringing just eighth other riders with her. By reducing the peloton to such a small size, no single team was able to control proceedings, leading to several attacks on the run-in to the Mur de Huy, with even eventual race-winner Van der Breggen trying her own move 9km from the finish.
Ultimately, though, no attacks were successful, after SD Worx decided to put Demi Vollering on the front of the group in order to commit to setting up a sprint for Van der Breggen, in the process catching lone leader Ruth Winder (Trek-Segafredo), who herself added an extra dimension to the race by surviving so long from an early break.
There was less intrigue in the men’s race, but still plenty of attacks to keep us entertained, with Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) in an especially animated mood to try going clear on multiple occasions, and early escapee Maurits Lammertink (Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert Materiaux) surviving until just before the Mur de Huy.
And there was drama out the back of the peloton too, as Tom Pidcock crashed during the latter stages of the race. With some help from his team, the young Brit managed to rejoin the peloton, but the incident and the effort made might have hindered him in the finale, where a sixth-place finish was lower than what he had hoped for given his recent run of podium finishes.